Friday, August 7, 2009

CPSIA - Riffing on Rocks

Now that rocks must be tested (by us humans, not by their manufacturer, the Almighty) for compliance with lead standards, it's also necessary to make sure they comply with ASTM F963. In another magnificent gift to mankind, Congress elected to convert ASTM F963, a perfectly good and workable voluntary safety standard into law as part of the CPSIA. This wasn't necessary. As Chairman Tenenbaum noted in her recent APEC speech: "The U.S. experience with safety standards has been that you get a great deal of product safety by relying on voluntary consensus standards coupled with regulatory authority to intervene quickly. In fact, my agency's statutes set a preference for voluntary standards over mandatory regulations. This places a lot of responsibility on industry." Imagine, another sign of excess in Congress' handiwork . . . .

Congress' grand gesture also wasn't helpful. Violations of the formerly voluntary standard now require an urgent report to be filed within 24 hours under Section 15(b). Let's be clear, ANY violation of ANY provision of just about ANY product safety law requires the emergency filing of a report to the CPSC as though the world is coming to an end. There is no materiality standard. In my next lifetime, please do not assign me to the department responsible for processing Section 15(b) filings at the CPSC.

Rocks, you may realize, are included in school science kits and also in toys. Once upon a time, we used rocks to learn about the environment and nature. Rocks happen to be present in our environment, no fault of ours but perhaps the Almighty had some purpose in mind. I imagine He thought rocks would inspire some kind of really cool law. And it did! In this case, if foolish educational companies want to sell rocks to schools or for inclusion in educational kits sold in toy stores, they must now test the rocks not only for lead but also for sharp points. Yes, rocks with sharp points need to be restricted under ASTM F963 for children aged eight years old or younger. The CPSC has yet to issue guidance to millions of curious Americans on how to manage this exposure when walking to the park or playing catch with the dog in the backyard.

Think of rocks you have seen. There are skipping rocks, those don't have sharp points. Those are kosher, presumably, if they pass the lead test. Other rocks, like shale, mica, magnetite, etc., are a bit more ragged in appearance, not to mention being dicey legally. They will probably fail the "sharp points" test under F963. Not only does that make them illegal, but it also could potentially trigger a Section 15(b) report and thereby a recall of the rocks. If you sell rocks for a living or as part of an educational business, how do you react to this kind of rule? Some options: (a) retool your kit around smooth stones (forget the educational value), (b) hand pick "good" rocks for each kit or sand the rocks down, (c) sell posters or picture cards of rocks, or (d) I have no idea what.

Rock suppliers cannot guarantee that rocks won't have sharp edges. They are rocks, after all. Suppliers will also swallow hard before testing rocks in a laboratory. It will be hard for them to deal with snickering employees of testing labs quoting on the latest load of rock tests, not to mention paying the bill. Many will just skip the tests and possibly the entire market. Posters will be our means of teaching Earth Science. I am sure the Chinese, Japanese and Germans are having a good laugh about the self-destruction we are merrily implementing to their benefit.

And if you have a problem, what are you supposed to do with all the deadly rocks? It would certainly not be very public-spirited to put such dangerous items in the city dump. Perhaps we should send them to Congress?

Is there a testing standard for rocks in the head? Is the concern lead, sharp points or that irritating rattling noise? I certainly hope there are vigorous use and abuse tests for rocks in the head - perhaps all the shaking might make somebody wake up.


Sebastian said...

What on earth should one do with a tub of geodes? They might pass standards when they are whole, but upon being struck with a (lead-free) hammer, they break open, revealing potentially sharp edges.

Rick Woldenberg, Chairman - Learning Resources Inc. said...

It goes without saying that rocks are just too dangerous to allow children to touch. It's much better to go to museums to see what nature looks like. No touching, though! Hey, when is the CPSC going to put out guidelines for testing pointy heads???

Anonymous said...

And these people want to regulate healthcare (involving REAL life / death decisions) in this country?!!

If our legislators cannot be trusted to create a simple, effective, COMMON SENSE solution with clear guidelines for basic product safety, how on EARTH are they going to convince us they should be trusted to make even the most basic of quality care decisions on behalf of our precious family members (young or old)?!

Before I even got to it, I was thinking the same thing, but with a twist... we ought to encourage our CHILDREN to send letters to these geniuses and enclose the rocks they inevitably are drawn to collecting (freaks of nature that they are, I know...). And perhaps they can close their letters with: "Sincerely, Johnny Smith, Whistle-Blowing on Mother Earth (she's really out of control - have you seen how many of these dangerous things she put in my yard?!)"

Final thought - does this mean that, if kids pick up rocks on school grounds, the schools could be liable?